Alex Jones’ forced exit from several online platforms has drawn attention to the implications of censorship in the digital age.
NEW YORK TIMES/HILARY SWIFT Enlarge
Free speech is tricky. Apply the protection of free speech, and the standard of wide tolerance for freedom of expression, to one case, and it has a way of suggesting itself to another.
Restrict speech and expression in one instance and the same restriction may eventually be applied to thee — the pet cause of the person who restricted or restrained speech.
Free speech is a seamless garment. It protects people protesting excessive police violence and people protesting gang violence and the lack of adequate police protection. It also protects the opinions of Alex Jones and Louis Farrakhan.
Free speech does not imply compelled speech — like forcing an abortion clinic to advertise adoption or a Catholic adoption agency to advertise abortion.
And private platforms cannot be compelled to publish views they disagree with, such as forcing the Nation magazine to run a pro-Trump essay, or forcing the National Review to run a pro-Liz Warren piece.
But private platforms that most people treat as public or quasi-public podiums, like Facebook and YouTube, though they are not legally obligated, serve themselves and the public by practicing liberality toward expression and controversial ideas, however wrong-headed those ideas may seem to the people who run Facebook or YouTube, or to the current American majority.
Right-wing propagandist Alex Jones recently compared Parkland, Fla., shooting survivor David Hogg to members of the Nazi Party. Mr. Jones has long claimed the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre was a fabrication.
He’s a barbarous demagogue.
Some social media platforms, such as Facebook, YouTube, and iTunes took down some of Mr. Jones’ content. Twitter did not.
Twitter got it right.
First, because Facebook and Twitter, though technically private spaces, are de facto public spaces in the minds and realities of most people.
But, second, because the seamlessness of free speech and expression, especially in this current time of anger and echo chambers. If Mr. Jones is taken down today, Laura Ingraham may be taken down tomorrow. Deny Louis Farrakhan access to your platform and someone is bound, eventually, to be offended by Cornel West, and ask: Why must we listen to him?
Let Mr. Jones speak and trust the people of the United States to judge him.
Mr. Farrakhan is a longtime anti-Semite, who calls Jews “Satan,” and says the September 11, 2001 attacks were actually masterminded by “the Jews.” He also hates gays and all white people.
He’s a hater. (An equal opportunity hater.)
Mr. Farrakhan is in the news again because Netflix has opted not to show a film about Mr. Farrakhan’s life in music.
Netflix has the right. It made a programming decision. It did not keep the film from being made. It simply chose not to show it. It can show inscrutable “indie” films or re-runs of Roy Rogers and Trigger chasing down stage coach robbers. It’s Netflix’s call.
But, again, in matters of speech and expression, it is better to err on the side of freedom and let the people decide. Most figured out Louis Farrakhan a long time ago.
WILL TOMER: Censorship in the digital age
This does not mean that discerning purveyors, or consumers, of information must treat all speech as equal. Some porn sites are actually a recruitment mechanism for human trafficking.
But it does mean that open societies, when they err, should err on the side of openness and trust of the citizens.
The way to combat stupid speech is smart speech.
The way to combat hate speech is charitable speech.
We must have faith in each other as citizens, and in the ultimate leavening of our messy democracy.
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